The Sukhoi Su-27 aircraft and its major variants are codenamed ‘Flanker’ by NATO air forces. The Su-27 was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a response to the West’s deployment of the F-16 Falcon and F-15 Eagle high-performance fighters. At the time, the front line Eastern Bloc fighters such as the MiG-25 were outclassed by the agility and systems of the newer Western planes.

The Flanker (and its cousin, the MiG-29 Fulcrum) were the Soviet answer. The Su-27A was really limited-production prototype, which flew in 1977; the full production version of the Su-27B debuted as the Su-34 interceptor in the mid 1980s. It became clear to the Soviets, however, that there was promise in the airframe, and as a result several variants of the Su-27 were designed for other domestic roles even before production versions began to appear . The never-completed conventional CATOBAR aircraft carrier of the Sov Navy was to have carried the Su-33, essentially a production Su-27K which was, in turn, a prototype navalised version of the Su-27. It had different undercarriage and modifications to allow operations in at-sea conditions. Around 20 Su-33 aircraft were actually delivered before the collapse of the Soviet Union; to the best of my knowledge, they are still around, most likely being operated by PVO Stranyy, the border air defense forces.

The Su-30 and Su-34, both retaining the ‘Flanker’ NATO designation, were other follow-ons. The Su-30 added precision strike systems and hardpoints to the purely air-to-air Su-27; the Su-34 expanded on this by incorporating titanium armor around the cockpit as well as Terrain-Following Radar (TFR). This version can be identified by its flat nose section, designed to hold the downward-facing TFR antenna. All ground-attack capable Flankers can fire antiship weapons such as the Kh-59 Kingfish Anti-Ship Missile.

Presently, the Su-27 is used with great glee by the defense establishment of the United States as a reason for spending inordinate amounts of money on gold-plated new fighter systems such as the F-22, especially as Russia is actively flogging the Flanker (sorry, couldn’t resist, defense pun) for sale to countries such as China and Vietnam. The story of its transfer to China is a (long) node in itself, which should probably be filed under J-11, the Chinese designation for the aircraft.

Specs for the Su-27 family are below, taken from Jane’s and the FAS. The Su-27 set more than 40 world performance records for takeoff speed, time-to-altitude and the like shortly after entering service in the mid 1980s. It should be noted that although the aircraft is very high performance (Mach 2.35 for early variants, Mach 1.8-2.0 for later, heavier ones with external hardpoints) the real limitation of the airplane was in its avionics. Soviet avionics simply couldn’t compete with Western systems for performance, reliability and weight/space. This has changed to some degree in recent years, and the Flankers now rolling off production lines may have systems roughly comparable to or slightly better than those of the F-15Cs and F-16 variants they were originally designed to face off against.

  • Dimensions: 71 ft 11 in / 21.935 m length, 20 ft 10 in / 5.932 m height, 48 ft 2 in / 14.7 m wingspan
  • Max Takeoff Weight: Su-30 52,910 lb. / 24,000 kg Su-34 97,800 lb / 44,360 kg.
  • Performance:
    • Su-30: Max Speed: Mach 2 | Range: 1620 nm / 3000 km | Thrust: 55,114 lb / 245.4 kN
    • Su-34: Max Speed: Mach 1.8 | Range 2160 nm / 4000 km | Thrust: 61,730 lb / 274.6 kN
  • Armament:
    • Su-30 (interceptor): one 30mm GSh-301 cannon, 12 hardpoints, 17,635lb/8000kg warload. Capable of firing a variety of guided AAM, ASM as well as unguided rockets and bombs.
    • Su-34 (strike): one 30 mm GSh-301 cannon, 12 hardpoints w/identical warload to Su-30.

Note that the Su-30 is much, much lighter than the Su-34 (just over half the max takeoff weight) but produces nearly the same amount of thrust. This reflects the high demands on the aircraft for maneuverability and performance in the inteceptor role; the heavier Su-34 contains more fuel and thus has a longer range for strike roles as well as a heavier typical loadout.

Some recognition info for ya: the Flanker is a twin-engined, twin-tailed fighter with a high bubble canopy. It has a boom extending out the back between the engines; likely for countermeasures and possibly rearward sensors. The intakes are under the fuselage. The aircraft looks a bit like an F-15 Eagle that has been bent just behind the cockpit - the nose sits quite high and angles down slightly (at least it appears to). This allows for better wing AOA as well as minimizes FOD problems operating on less-than-stellar quality airfields.

In reference to the last paragraph, the knowledgeable misterfuffie informs me that the boom is known as a 'wanker' for the purposes of a recognition mnemonic: "The FLANKER has a WANKER!" Whatever works for the professionals...

Sources: Jane’s Fighting Aircraft, The Federation of American Scientists, U.S. Air Force OPFOR (Opposing Forces) equipment guide

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